Visible/Invisible World(s)

By Jheri St. James

     Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo on May 16, 1997. This country should be the envy of Africa. Twice the size of Texas, it is the African continent’s third-largest country, after Sudan and Algeria. It boasts fertile soil, vast mineral wealth and the world’s eighth-longest river, a natural force powerful enough to provide electricity to the entire African continent.

     King Leopold colonized Congo in the 19th century, but it was the Belgians who began the plunder in earnest. The king amassed a fortune in diamonds and rubber plantations. His employees were slaves, whose hands and feet he had cut off as punishment for not meeting quotas.

     Many people are confused by the name references in this region. In 1483, Portuguese Admiral Diago Cao arrived at the mouth of a large river. He asked the locals who said “Ndazi” (river) which the Portuguese misheard as Zaire. Since the Portuguese had named the river Zaire they automatically called anything upriver or in the basin Zaire. In November 1908, the Belgian parliament changed the name to the Belgian Congo. Half a century later in 1960, independence brought the name Republic of Congo. In 1964, it was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fact that there was another country peopled by the Bakonga tribe didn’t matter. It was called Congo (Brazzaville) versus Congo (Kinshasa). The neighboring, northwesterly area is known as the Republic of Congo.

      “A vast country with immense economic resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has been at the center of what could be termed Africa’s world war,” says the online BBC News UK Edition of Feb. 16, 2005. “The five-year conflict pitted government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. But despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, the threat of civil war remains. The war claimed an estimated 3,000,000 lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. It has been called possibly the worst emergency to unfold in Africa in recent decades. The war had an economic as well as political side. Fighting was fueled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder its natural resources.”

     “The Democratic Republic of Congo has a population of 56 million in an area of 905,354 square miles (2.34 million sq. km.). Its capital city is Kinshasa and major languages are French, Lingala, Kiswahili, Kikongo, and Tshiluba. Its president is Joseph Kabila, who heads the interim government formed in June 2003 . . .” (World Factbook)

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     Words . . . synonyms of other words, used in many of our Common Ground 191 journal entries, but all meaning the same thing—people killing each other for earthly resources—land, oil, minerals. There is no easy way to avoid these words. One cannot delete the horrors of war. The writer is faced with a dilemma: to once again chronicle the battles, the numbers, the outrages; or to attempt to portray the deeper spirit essence of a land, its people, its soil. The spirit we hope will become the crux of Common Ground 191, the spirit that lives on after the time of slaughters, burials, grieving is done. Art captures that spirit in a timeless way.

     In all countries, at all times, artists work to express this spirit of a people, a time, a place, an occurrence, a heart. The website “www.Congo-Pages: Explore the Democratic Republic of Congo”, created by Nick Hobgood, is a, “. . . virtual safari filled with many images from all over the country,” including the art images in this journal entry. Unfortunately none of the artists are named, so this presentation will contain pictures worth thousands of words. Mr. Hobgood also includes information for divers, art, homes, food, animals, a Judo club, symphonies, as well as geographical facts and basics. Simultaneously with resource plundering, land grabbing and killing, there is another category of life that endures, apparently.

     In a way, these wooden masks represent life on earth, life above ground. There is the external reality of the mask, and the internal reality of the spirit—visible life and death, and the invisible world—the thoughts and emotions which provided the impetus for this special artistic creation.

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     The countries bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo are Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. In December 2002, the new President Joseph Kabila was successful in getting occupying Rwandan forces to withdraw from eastern Congo and two months later, the Pretorian Accord was signed by all remaining warring parties to end the fighting and set up a government of national unity. A transitional government was set up and a new constitution was adopted on July 17, 2003, with Joseph Kabila remaining as president, joined by four vice presidents from the former government, rebel camps and the political opposition. President Kabila’s father, President Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001. Joseph is the oldest of 10 children fathered by Laurent. He surprised diplomats and observers by declaring that he wanted to seek a peaceful end to his country’s civil war and to introduce a multi-party democracy.

     The World Factbook says, “Note: Estimates (of population) for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy (male: 47.06 years; female: 51.28 years), higher infant mortality and death rates, lower population and growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected.”

     We are left with a portrait of a country in transition; a country whose name may again change; a country of young people dreaming of peace and unity. We wish them well. Noble faces with inward looking eyes, like that above rendered in copper just above will live on. Our soil collector in The Democratic Republic Congo was Jean-Le’on Bonnechere, who is related to the owner of a shop called Euro Kitchens here in Laguna Beach, California. Certainly the story of this soil collection would be interesting, but we have been unable to reach Mr. Bonnechere for those details. If and when they are forthcoming, we will gladly include them in this journal entry. They remain invisible.

“We look at it and do not see it;
Its name is The Invisible.
We listen to it and do not hear it;
Its name is The Inaudible.
We touch it and do not find it;
Its name is The Formless.”
Lao-Tzu (604-531 B.C.)

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     “If we observe the world around us, it’s easy to see that what we can’t see is more powerful than what we can. Take a look at air, for example. Air is hard to look at, of course, because it’s invisible. (In the places where you can see the air, what you’re seeing is pollution, not air.) On earth, air is more powerful than almost anything we know. It contains ample amounts of oxygen for animals, and lots of carbon dioxide for plants. Without it, both would die. It is a lifeline that is so omnipresent (it’s always as close as your next breath) we usually take it for granted. It’s essential to our functioning for even the next ten minutes. And yet it’s invisible.

     “‘All right,’ some may say, ‘What about something physical like a house? You can see a house, and if someone dropped a house on you, it would kill you faster than taking air away from you, so wouldn’t a house be more powerful?’ What would make the house fall? Gravity—another of those powerful invisible ‘forces’ we take for granted. If gravity didn’t pull the house down, the house would have no power to destroy.

     “And what about light? You can’t ‘see’ light. It’s when light reflects off something that we can see its effects. We can see the glow of the light bulb, and we can see the light it casts, but we can’t see the light traveling from the bulb to the objects it’s illuminating.

     “If the sun radiates enough light to illuminate the earth, why is the space between here and the sun dark? Because the light waves are invisible until they strike something—namely the earth’s atmosphere (which is made of our good old invisible friend, air—and held in place by our invisible friend, gravity).

     “And heat? We can’t see heat, but we can certainly feel it. If it wasn’t for the invisible atmosphere (air) of our planet, held in place by invisible gravity, holding invisible heat, do you know how cold the earth would be? Cold. About 280 degrees below zero at night.

     “Coolness is just as important for human survival—and until things approach the freezing point, coolness can’t be easily perceived either.

     “Can you tell the temperature of a tub of water by just looking at it? Unless it’s hot enough to steam or cold enough to freeze, you probably can’t. Can you tell how warm or cool a room is by looking at it through a pane of glass? Again, unless there are some clues, probably not.

     "Looking inside ourselves for a moment, we find that our most powerful inner motivators can’t be seen. Love, hate, passion, greed, fear, desire, lust, compassion, charity, goodness—all the emotions that set us into motion can’t be seen. The effects can certainly be seen, but the emotions themselves, no.

     “And thoughts, well, thoughts are so invisible (yes, you can ‘see’ your own thoughts, but nobody else can) and so powerful, we think they deserve a chapter all to themselves.” (Quoted from McWilliams, Peter & John-Roger. Life 101. Los Angeles: Prelude Press. 1991.)

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     Let us contemplate the art of the fluctuating Democratic Republic of Congo, that visible expression of unseen thoughts and emotions, remembering that the media of copper, wood, paint and malachite are products of the earth. Perhaps by reflecting deeply enough we can even alter the invisible world of negative thoughts and feelings at the core of all the Democratic Republic of Congo’s external tragedies. That’s what Common Ground 191 is committed to doing—using art as a process to bring the spirit of the soils of the world together and in so doing, unite them symbolically—and ultimately visibly.

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